Last weekend, we finally caught up with I’m Not There, the brilliant Todd Haynes movie about the myths of Bob Dylan. The director intertwines the lives of six men, each symbolizing a stage of Dylan’s artistic development and public persona. They include a wide range: a young black boy, played by Marcus Carl Franklin; the protest singer, played by Christian Bale; the walking, talking enigma played by Cate Blanchett; the egomaniacal prick, played by Heath Ledger; the romantic, Ben Winshaw; and the lonesome recluse, played by Richard Gere. I don’t know if you’d like it if you aren’t a Dylan fan, but, if you are, it’s an amazing narrative.
On Monday, Brian Williams reported on the NBC Nightly News that the Monday of the last full week of January is known as “Blue Monday,” because it’s the single day that the most people are depressed, and has the highest suicide rate.
On Tuesday, Heath Ledger was found dead in his apartment.
I don’t mean to imply that he committed suicide. His body was found by a masseuse, with whom he had an appointment, and people planning suicide don’t usually get a massage first. As I write this, there’s not a lot of information about what caused his death. The autopsy didn’t reveal anything, nor was there a suicide note. Police found prescription drugs in the apartment, but they’d find prescription drugs in my apartment, too. There was no evidence that these drugs had been taken in anything other than the prescribed dose.
He was only 28 years old, and he had a daughter, Matilda, age two. And now he’s gone.
We know and grieve over Heath Ledger because he was famous. We knew his face. We sat in the dark of movie theaters, and projected our own emotions into his eyes. He was young and handsome and talented, and it’s a loss for all of us.
Those of us who love comics felt a special kinship, because he was playing The Joker in The Dark Knight. The trailers and the early teasers indicate that he gave a brilliant performance, one that understands the complicated character created by Jerry Robinson and further sculpted by dozens of writers and artists over the past 50 years.
People die every day, even young men with beautiful children. It’s always a loss, to those who know them and to the communities in which they live.
When fictional characters die, it’s different. They aren’t physically real. A good author (which I’m using here to include writers, directors, artists, actors and others who contribute to the vitality of the creation) makes a fictional character come alive for the audience. When they die, even if only on the page, it moves us. I’m still mad at Stephen King for Cujo. Even so, we know it’s not real.
Using death in fiction can be moving, but it can also be over-used so that it loses its impact. The current rumors about which characters will die in DC’s Final Crisis are a case in point. Maybe the story will kill off Martian Manhunter or Aquaman, but no one really cares. Superhero comic fans expect the dead to be brought back to life. It’s a cheap stunt, and it de-humanizes the characters, instead of making them heroic.
When Superman died in 1992, it felt important to the fans because DC Comics spent months showing how his loss affected the people around him. It told a human story about a superhuman character. When Green Arrow was killed a few years later, it was a meaningless stunt, throwing away a classic character for some shock value. And now, in 2008, we’re speculating in advance, waiting for Vegas to give us odds.
In life, it doesn’t work that way. Just ask someone in mourning.
Martha Thomases brought more comics to the attention of more people than anyone else in the industry. Her work promoting The Death of Superman made an entire nation share in the tragedy of one of our most iconic American heroes. As a freelance journalist, she has been published in the Village Voice, High Times, Spy, the National Lampoon, Metropolitan Home, and more. For Marvel comics she created the series Dakota North. Martha worked as a researcher and assistant for the author Norman Mailer on several of his books, including the Pulitzer-Prize-winning Executioner's Song, On Women and Their Elegance, Ancient Evenings, and Harlot's Ghost.